Monday, June 25, 2018

Get In the Boat!

Get In the Boat! 
1 Samuel 17:57-18:5; Mark 4:35-41 

Last Sunday, while we celebrated VBS Sunday, and did a good job of it I hasten to add, it was also Father’s Day. Today we mark a less recognized celebration, Open and Affirming Sunday, as Gay Pride Parades dot the countryside. There are also other marches, protesting the increased violence against families at the US southern border. 
It is a difficult thing to talk about the power of love, even in the church. It is a complicated thing to talk about sexuality, especially if you do not stay within the carefully constructed male or female duality. We know that love transcends boundaries, but some of our social constructs are precious to us. We become afraid that if there is a change in the definition of terms, our whole world may fall apart. Fear causes us to react in extremes. 
The text from 1 Samuel is one that gives comfort and support to the gay men in the Bible reading community, and to all of us who have compassion for them in their love/hate relationship with the culture. I believe it helps us to be aware that there is support for love without boundaries within the text. 
Jonathan meets David for the first time, and there is an instantaneous “love at first sight” event. Jonathan is a prince, the son of the King. His sword and armor are instantly recognized by the fighting forces, and the wider community. They are symbols of his privilege and authority in the community. In this alternate telling of the “discovery” of David by Saul and his court; Abner, the leader of the Army, introduces the victorious David. He is honored by the King. Jonathan, the son of the King, is thunderstruck. 
On occasions when this text has been mentioned in the past, it is usually highlighted as a special ‘brotherly’ bond between the two. But consider for a moment the implications if Jonathan were meeting a woman for the first time. And upon that first greeting he makes gifts to her of his cloak, and armor, and symbols of his royal family; then we would characterize this as a great romantic meeting of two souls. The scene would be described as carrying clearly sexual overtones.  
There are sexual references abounding within the description of the relationship between David and Jonathan. There is evidence that this relationship is so distasteful to Saul, that he makes continuous attempts to break them apart. He forces David into marriage with one of his daughters. He thunders at Jonathan that his behavior is a disgrace to the family honor. If you read the story, even allowing the possibility that this was a romantic pairing, you will see I am speaking the truth. 
The Tuesday morning Bible Study is currently looking at First Samuel. We already know that the characters in these chapters are three dimensional. They are not reduced to shallow constructs, moved around within a morality play, where the “moral of the story” is so overt that the characters seem docile. 
Instead we have actors involved in scenes of high drama. There is danger lurking around every corner. One moment David is being honored, the next moment his life is being threatened and he is chased around the countryside. All of these too-real moments are presented within the context of the relationship between Israel and their God. 
God, who was reluctant to allow the people to have a King, remains faithful, while the King becomes increasingly distracted by the demands of public life and vanity. In a world where daily headlines are focused on the rich and powerful, their personal exploits, and the intrigues of war and rumors of war, the voice of God is difficult to hear and trust. After all, God does not seem to set boundaries on the madness of the King, or the humanity of the king’s family. The King’s family might be easier to manage, if the kids are simply greedy or self-indulgent, and not presenting a different way of seeing the world. 
In the gospel message, the disciples are in a boat trying to cross the lake we call the Sea of Galilee. This body of water sits about 30 miles from the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, a body of water that is more than 100 times the size of Galilean lake. Storms can race from the Mediterranean and across the Sea of Galilea very suddenly. A small boat in a big storm is a dangerous place to be. 
We live our lives in the same kind of world that the Bible describes. Natural events and storms can change our routines in an instant. Plans made weeks in advance, can be set aside indefinitely when the tornado rearranges the neighborhood. We can become so focused on the big events of nature, or governments breaking established taboos and alliances while trifling with the attention of despots and dictators; the reality of our own relationship with the God of creation seems to lose its place in the context. 
The boat is swamping, and Jesus sleeps in the stern of the boat. We ought to at least wake him up so he can help us. He helps everybody else. Come on Jesus, don’t you see, we need you? 
Jesus looks at us in disbelief. “Really, do you not know how much I love you? Do you not trust that I will be with you through any storm?” It is very hard to keep our mind on Jesus, when the social structures that we have put together over decades are being pulled apart by rich and seemingly indifferent bureaucrats. Our entire comprehension of justice is undermined when children are imprisoned and held as ransom for a despicable border wall.  
Saul is driven to madness, at least in part by his fear and disgust at the relationship between Jonathan and David, and through it all David is blessed. The story is not about David and Jonathan. The story is not really about David and Saul. The story is about Israel and God. And yet, David and Jonathan and Saul are all a part of that story. The relationship between David and Jonathan survives the push and pull of the father-son relationship of Saul and Jonathan. The relationship between them, does not distract God. Love is just love. 
The story of Jesus and the disciples on a boat in the storm, is not about storms. Or maybe it is. Maybe, it is about storms because we all are vulnerable to attacks by forces that are seemingly beyond our control. We are vulnerable to events, both natural and human-made; events that arise when it is not convenient for us. Our email ‘in box’ fills up, on the weekend of the family funeral, when our eyes are so full of tears that the words on the screen seem to drip down the page without meaning. 
The assaults on our sense of loyalty and partnership are so breath taking that we are disgusted; and the disgust is magnified by our seeming inability to reduce the madness by doing any one thing that has the chance to turn the tide. The country that we love has taken to parading around the stage of the world, dressed as a villain, and devoted to cruel acts - against poor humans, to massage the egos of the self-important. 
And Jesus appears to be asleep in the stern of the boat! Can’t he see where this is headed? Why won’t God answer our prayers? It feels like the ship may sink. 
Ships do sink you know. Entire nations lose their sense of purpose and direction. The fascination with the rich and famous can suddenly change the entire discourse for decades to come. The madness of the insatiable greed for wealth, inevitably races towards economic depression. I have read about 1929. The system crashes when the rich deplete the fat of the land, and the integrity and ingenuity of the working class has been reduced to a memory. The gap between the rich and the poor becomes so wide that those who used to live contentedly in the middle, are plunged to the bottom. Their own modest holdings swallowed whole by insatiable egomaniacs. 

Get in the boat with Jesus. Turn your attention to the will of God. Speak up for justice and mercy. Do not let the chaos of the storm permit you to think that God is any less than God. Do not let the fear of money silence your conviction to speak out against cruelty. Do not let the crude machinations of a world - that manipulates “the law” to protect privilege,  justify your own silence. Pray to God, and live with integrity, Amen. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Never Call the Good Bad

Never Call the Good Bad 
Psalm 130; Mark 3:20-35 

The sermon this morning takes us to edge of theological considerations that seem acceptable for a Sunday morning sermon. In the past this congregation has appreciated the fact that we do at times talk about the hard news in the world, and the hard news in the scripture. So, even though I have some misgivings, I am going forward with this “hard teaching” from the gospel. 
The gospel of Mark does not usually spend very many words on any specific event. We have often noted that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is the man of action. He does or says something, and then immediately, he begins something new. 
The portion of Chapter 3 we have this morning is uncharacteristically full of theology, disputed teachings, and outright controversy. When I was checking my favorite commentaries for help on this passage, the usually reserved and middle of the road “The Interpreter’s Bible” from the mid-1950’s, characterized the passage in verse 29 with this assertion;  “With all reverence, a list of ‘sayings of Jesus’ could be assembled under the startling heading, “Things I wish Jesus had never said.” 
Most of the things that would be included in this list are passages that are taken out of context to support cruelty instead of compassion. “The poor will always be with you, “ has been misappropriated to deny compassion for the poor. Today we consider the “Unforgivable Sin.” 
Here is the setting. Jesus went to a remote place for prayer and instruction with his closest disciples. The twelve apostles are named, and given authority to preach and command evil spirits. When they return, there is a crush of people, demanding attention for their illnesses. The press of the crowds is so intense, Jesus and the disciples cannot even find time to eat. His family and friends tried to drag Jesus to safety from the crowd. 
There are scribes from Jerusalem among the throng, checking out the holy man, seeking violations of the Law and the spirit of the Law. The scribes say, he is possessed by Beelzebub, gets his authority to cast out demons from the chief of demons. 
So first let us grab a hold of the name “Beelzebub” or “Beelzebul.” The ancient Aramaic word “Ba-al” means god. The Philistines honored a “god of the flies,” that ‘sounds like’ Beelzebub. There was also a Beelzebul, Lord of the Mansion. The history of English translations seems to alternate between which title is printed. The Greek text appears like Beelzebul to me. 
In Christian usage, Beelzebub is appropriated as symbolic of Satan, posing as the ultimate leader of the forces of evil. The personification of Satan as purely evil instead of the tempter, is a transformation that took place in the culture between the time of the Old Testament and the New Testament. These images from the culture are used in the New Testament without challenge, even though Old Testament texts never make this association. 
Jesus does not quibble with the learned men of the Temple, about the obvious conflict between making associations that are not justified by the Law of Moses. Mark quotes Jesus as shifting the language to ‘Satan.’ He accepts their challenge, and defeats it with simple logic, “Why on earth would a bad spirit defeat his own forces?” 
The commentaries then attribute the intense circumstances as building up the intensity of the Christ. Jesus calls out those who would blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, in order to flatter themselves. And for embellishment, says that those who call good evil, commit a sin that is eternal, or cannot be forgiven. 
Jesus is a good guy. Jesus has great compassion for the poor and those in distress. Jesus goes to great lengths to relieve people of their suffering, without demanding a profession of faith or evidence of their conversion. The passage today says that there are limits to the ‘niceness’ of Jesus. There is a line in the sand that you shall not cross. 
This is surprisingly hard for the theologian in me. I believe that God loves all of creation, and invites all of humanity into a relationship with the good and generous God, that ought to result in good and generous humans. I do not believe that each human needs to accept Jesus of Nazareth in order to be filled with God’s grace. I do believe that humans are capable of filling their conscious lives with selfish and aggressive behaviors that can keep God’s grace at arms length. 
Living without grace in one’s life, makes all of life a struggle, and often results in a particular kind of isolation. Men of evil intentions are drawn to the orbits of other evil men out of a desire for a mutual admiration society. Still, it is a lonely and unsatisfying existence. 
Living outside of God’s grace is a shame, and a sin, a measure of separation from God. It is a sin that is challenged by the intrusion of grace every day, and subject to prompt reconciliation. Think of the penitent thief on the cross with Jesus. The compassion of God, so clearly expressed by Jesus is very real and very pervasive. 
What Jesus calls an eternal sin, is more than ignoring God’s grace. What Jesus confronts here is denying the reality of God’s grace, to the extent that we glorify evil. When we glorify evil, we are walking a thin line, as reported in a few select New Testament texts, including this one. 
The thought that a person could knowingly be so committed to evil that they would deny all that is good, is hard for me to accept. My personal range of experiences includes people making bad choices. I am learning about systemic injustice and how it is a convenient way for otherwise good people to be “tricked” into continuing violent systems. 
I have at different times been willing to accept blanket condemnation of “evil monsters” who commit atrocities. But I realize that I do not know these historical figures personally. I have no idea what went through their minds. I cannot imagine the chain of events that began as blaming the Jews of Europe as the source of social upheavals, and resulted in millions of people arrested, confined and slaughtered. Can that all get rightly attributed to one man? Can a system become so committed to evil that otherwise good people are “tricked” into accepting such extraordinary violence as “good?” 
So what does Jesus and the evangelist Mark want us to learn today? My commentary suggested that there is such a thing as an “Unforgivable Sin,” but it rarely occurs. The commentary suggests it is important for you and I to know that even “nice” Jesus will only cover sin up to a limit. It is possible to really and truly get on God’s bad side. 
This is a sobering thought. The practical theologian in me suggests we think of it like this. Because there is an ultimate boundary where love and forgiveness cannot reach, we are required to take responsibility to nurture our relationship with God. 
Because God works in the world through our lives, it becomes more important than ever, that our lives express God’s love and available forgiveness in a public way. We avoid the temptation to threaten people with damnation, that is not Christlike. We recognize the nature of God’s love is invitation. So we continue to develop our ability to invite, and develop more and better ways to promote inclusion. 
The challenge is more real today than ever before. After years of counting on the Supreme Court to set boundaries to prevent the infringement on the freedoms of each citizen, set against the waves of cruelty that can pass through the populace like a flu virus, we are forced by the court of today to make our welcome and determined sense of inclusion more visible. The culture is in a cycle that accepts violence against those we might see as “others” - justified. We counter that best by standing up for what we believe. 
This is how we change the world for good. We teach and preach the true compassionate community, and trust that the antidote to rejection of God and all goodness will emerge in the subtext. Just because it is rare, does not make the ultimate sin - the rejection of goodness inherent in God’s creation, any less of a threat. Just as our active, and productive mortal lives are short, compels us to do what we can, whenever we can, with all of the gifts we have been given, to defeat evil with compassion and forgiveness. 

As we pass through this time of widespread anxiety, we live with visible hope and faith in our good and generous God. May God bless us in our earnest desire to live with love, and honor the simple glory of a relationship with God, Amen. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Laws Are Meant to Keep Our Focus

Laws Are Meant to Keep Our Focus 
2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6 

Human laws are understood to apply equally to people in the population. Human justice in the United States, theoretically, sees everyone as equal. When we detail the extent to which racial prejudice is documented in the application of our laws, we know that we have a long way to go to achieve equality. 

It becomes more of an issue, when the system of making laws is highjacked to give and preserve an advantage for those who have power and privilege. It happens. We know it happens. The situation we face in our “free” society is that the advantage is tipped towards money, and preserved by lies, fear mongering, and harsh voting restrictions. Power is preserving an advantageous position under the guise of law and order. 

These cultural issues are not new. They did not get invented today. And the love of law and order as a front, is time honored way of masking the preservation of the status quo. The laws of God are not immune. 

It is easy to be outraged every day at the variety of ways we manipulate ‘law and order’ to limit the freedom and free expression of people of color. The rich, white owners of the NFL making rules about how the mostly black players must “respect” the national anthem comes to mind. We are even more cruel if the people of color are also poor, and also have no or limited legal status as a citizen. We do not accept that undocumented immigrants have even human rights. 

Jesus of Nazareth, was an itinerant preacher. He did not have credentials from the Temple school in Jerusalem. While he was from the house of David, it would be hard to make a clear case that he had the correct genealogy to be a priest from the house of Levi. There are rules you know. 

The Herodians were folks who believed that the political arrangement between the family of Herod and the Roman occupying forces, provided the best means available for life in the land of Israel. Taxes were collected by Herod, and paid off the Romans, and maintained a sense of order in the economy for Herod and the Israeli people. And the priests in the Temple got their cut, too. 

The Pharisees were far less political. They were a religious people, deeply devoted to the law of Moses. They took great pride in being able to list and follow, hundreds if not thousands of the little rules, particularly in Leviticus. They were the forerunners of the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews of our day. They have prayer outfits that carry the symbols associated with the priority each sect gives to the law. They can only be moved to political action, by demonstrating a threat to respect for the Law of Moses. 

In the gospel of Mark, the Herodians quickly assessed Jesus as a threat. There were a continuing string of would be Messiahs in the land, trying to raise a rag-tag army to confront the Romans and the forces of Herod who had sold out the people. The Herodians were vigilant in detecting threats, and heading them off before the Romans got tired of the elaborate balancing act that preserved their positions. 

In today’s story, the compassionate Jesus defends his disciples while they conveniently broke one of the 10 commandments. Can you believe it? A preacher condoned these would be disciples of a so-called holy man, when they overtly broke the commandment about the Sabbath. 

One of my favorite parts of this story is that the commandment respecting the sabbath is in near total disregard today. We all talk about how busy we are. We all talk about being tired and run down. We almost never even consider that there is a commandment to take a day off. Go home. Sit down. Say a prayer. Pay attention to the family. Leave the TV alone. Listen to you own heartbeat. Take the kids, and walk around the block. I cannot tell you how often people have complained that church “ran late,” as if 60 minutes is an absolute maximum God is allowed. Sabbath is supposed to be a whole day! This is not a suggestion from Pastor Chuck, it is one of the 10 commandments. 

The disciples pulled the heads off of, maybe wheat, and were chewing on the grains. The Herodians said, “see how uncouth this rural, undisciplined group is!” And the Pharisees said, “Oh, now I see. They do not even follow the 10 commandments. You are right. This must be a religious front for a terrorist group. We will help you get rid of this Jesus.” 

So is Jesus wrong for healing the sick, and having a snack on the Sabbath? Jesus tries to help people see that the Sabbath was intended by God to keep the lines of communication between God and humanity open. It is like, “Call your mother on Sunday afternoon.” It is good for you. It is not about assessing a penalty. It is not a measure of justice. It is doing what feeds the relationship. The Law of God directs us towards love, and is not designed to judge - even ourselves - as unworthy.  

The commandments of God feel like a burden, heck it feels like a logic puzzle, in the hands of those who obsess over rules. When we become obsessed by rules and the right way to do things, it becomes a burden. We all have stories about the matriarch who obsessively controlled the family dinners, or the church kitchen. 
An important thing to understand is that the generation of today will gladly never return to church or the family dinner, if they encounter their generosity confronted by mini dictators. This generation will not play the game twice. We need to be constantly aware of ourselves, and what pressure we put on others to conform. Is it necessary? Is it healthy? Can we do it in a way that makes new people feel welcome and included? If the answer to any of those questions is ”NO,” then get over it. 
The answer of course, is to live with love. To live with love is to extend grace to yourself and to others. Your relationship with God makes you Good Enough. Sometimes, I am not logical. I do things the same way, because it makes me comfortable. Some habits are useful, because there are efficiencies built in to my routines. If I do it the same way, I will have what I need, and I will not forget something now, that I will need later. 
When I give myself grace, I am free to be myself, and I do not set such high expectations that I am frozen by the fear of failure. I do not try too hard, so I am free to express myself in relationship to you. I ask how you are, and listen for the heart of your answer. I encourage you to share your concerns, and trust you will hear my reply. 
Rules are not wrong. But the self-inflated righteous who thunder about, “These are Commandments, Not suggestions,” need to take a little time with Jesus. This is one of any number of stories. Know the commandments, but love the heart of what God is trying to say, and then live with love leading the way. The biggest reason for the laws and rules on the Bible, is to think about God, talk to God, build your relationship. 

God is the creator of the universe. God has a quality lifestyle that does not include agonizing over your every little infraction of every rule. Instead, God looks into the hearts of the human family, and shares love. Let the laws of God help you draw a straight line, a line straight to the heart of God, and follow that path. May God’s peace and love surprise you this day, and every day, Amen.